$65.1 million verdict in Florida

Twelve-year-old Jorge Luis Cabrera Jr. was found dead next to a Miami bus shelter in October 1998 after he took shelter there during a rainstorm. Weather data shows a lightning strike near the bus shelter at the time the boy would have been there; the defense claims there were several signs of an indirect lightning hit on the Cabrera’s body and clothing. Accusations were made that faulty wiring in the bus shelter electrocuted the boy, but employees of Eller Media, which owned the bus shelter, were acquitted of manslaughter charges.

Civil lawyers resuscitated the argument on behalf of Cabrera’s father, noting that Victor Garcia, who wired the shelter, was unlicensed. A jury agreed, and awarded $4.1 million in compensatory and $61 million in punitive damages; Cabrera’s mother settled separately. “Jose Irizarry, the jury foreman, told The Herald on Friday that he and his fellow jurors did not believe lightning could have killed the boy.” (David Ovalle, “Firm to pay millions in boy’s death”, Miami Herald, Jun. 25; “Jury: Eller Media should pay $65.1M”, South Florida Business Journal, Jun. 27; Chrystian Tejedor, “Jury awards $65.1 million”, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Jun. 25; “Company Found Negligent In Boy’s Electrocution Death”, WTVJ-TV; “Unlicensed Electrician Admits ‘Regret’ In Boy’s Electrocution Trial”, Local 10 News, May 3; Colson Hicks Eidson press release; verdict form for Serrano v. Eller Media Co., Case No. 13-1998-CA-023808-0000-01 (Dade Cty. Fla. Cir. Ct.)).

Risibly unclear on the concept: the Miami Herald reports that “Today, more than 850 Miami-Dade Transit Authority bus shelters are lit by roof-mounted solar panels instead of electricity.” (I think they mean to say that the new bus shelters are lower voltage.)

Two separate issues here:

1) The $65.1 million award is unreasonably high, especially considering that the defendants already settled separately with the boy’s mother.

2) One side in this trial—and one can’t tell from the press coverage whether it was the plaintiffs or the defense—put forward to the jury a scientific theory that simply wasn’t true. A death from lightning will differ substantially from a death from a commercial high-voltage electrical injury. Why was one side allowed to argue junk science to a jury?

More: Jul. 18.

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